With “Exquisite Corpse,” russian-doll makes its biggest journey yet — to Budapest in 1944, not long before the Soviet army invaded the city. Nadia boarded a 6 train intending to go to 1982, probably planning to pry open some floorboards at Vera’s apartment. Now she’s in her grandmother’s hometown and body.
I’ve been trying to figure out the broad strokes of how time travel works in russian-doll. Given what happened to the original Peschauer family savings/fortune, this mode of transportation makes sense. Nadia’s first trip to the past seems to have come mostly unbidden — Ruth is the one who mentions Nora in the premiere episode, which, in retrospect, shows how worried she has been with her old friend of her. After that, Nadia could summon the time-traversing train at will. Alan was able to join in on the fun, which suggests that he and Nadia are on another round of self-exploration together. While he consciously chose to board that train, he didn’t know where (or when or to whom) he was going. But eventually, he too could readily return to a specific time and place (1962 Berlin).
The train seems to operate on conscious and subconscious desires — it takes passengers both witting (Alan) and unwitting (Nadia, on her first trip). Sometimes it leads them exactly when and where they want to go. At other times, as we’ve seen with Nadia, the train travels even further into the past to a time and place where the person needs to be, even if they don’t realize it.
Nadia has said on more than one occasion that she will go as far back into the past as she needs and do whatever it takes to fix things. In “Exquisite Corpse,” she gets her chance while navigating the most perilous setting of the season so far. Her bluster from her was always a bit of an odd fit when she was in Nora, but as an adolescent Vera walking around in Nazi-occupied Budapest, it’s a potential liability. Even returning to Vera’s home on Dohány Street (the first stop on her 2022 Budapest trip) is a dicier proposition, as it lies within the Budapest Ghetto, part of the old Jewish Quarter where the Nazis forcibly relocated Hungarian Jews during the war.
But Nadia is so confident she has finally struck the right of time and place to undo generations of harm, intentional or otherwise, that she’s initially unfazed by the sight of Hungarian guards at the Keleti train station. She even mouths off a bit to one of them before a young woman intervenes, apologizing for her fellow young widow. Nadia tries to list her help in tracking down the Peschauer family valuables, which only upsets the woman, who, like Vera (before Nadia arrived), has been disguising herself as a widow. “Do you want to wind up like your mother?” the woman admonishes. This briefly throws Nadia. She can muster only a sad “Already?” as she realizes that her great-grandparents and other relatives have been forced into concentration camps.
“Do you want to wind up like your mother?” That question follows the Peschauer women no matter the year or the city. It was one of Nadia’s greatest fears of her in 2019, and, as we saw in “Brain Drain,” it’s one she hasn’t completely resolved. In the ’80s, Nora railed against becoming like her mother, Vera, whom she saw as a “puppet master.” For Vera in 1944, it was imperative that she did not wind up like her mother.
We don’t get to see exactly how Vera avoided her mother’s fate despite being on her own. Presumably, she had some help from Delia, who has been hiding out in the walls of their building. No wonder Delia defended Vera so fiercely to Nadia-Nora (and probably to regular Nora) — their bond was forged in the most adverse of times. But here, she and Vera are still young enough that Delia doesn’t try to talk Nadia-Vera out of looking for the family fortune, which is “stored” in a warehouse (the train will come later) where the belongings of Hungarian Jews are picked over by their former neighbors.
Although Nadia-Vera has a bit of fun at the expense of another Hungarian guard, the mood becomes melancholy again as she searches for her family’s valuables. She subtly shakes her head at the sight of all the china and place settings, the art and furniture; she’s at a loss for words for the third time in this episode, which contributes to her pensive tone. When Nadia-Vera finds the family lot (No. 1407), this is the quietest stretch of the entire series. She bundles the jewelry and other valuables into a familiar-looking leather bag and manages to walk out of the building undetected (from the looks of the other crates, it’s not the first time someone has done this).
Nadia hides the belongings in a tunnel (which also looks familiar), makes herself a map, then tracks down László the priest (the name of his church, St. Anne’s, was on his gravestone). Even in this supposed sanctuary, Nadia-Vera is reminded of her fraught situation; as she tells László, for people like her, being “welcome” actually means “tolerated.” But she can’t fix this part of the past. All she can do is move forward with her plan de ella, which falls into place almost seamlessly despite a tense moment at the Keleti station. She knows the address of the cousin who offered to take Vera in after the war (his letter was among the things she took from Vera’s apartment in “Brain Drain”), so she knows when and where to send the map that will eventually guide her grandmother to her family’s valuables.
When Nadia boards the 6622 train, she really is hoping for the best: “This’ll change everything for my family.” Cut to season two’s opening scene, with Vera recovering the bag from the tunnel. But this can’t be right — if Nadia has changed the past, why is this exact scene happening again?
Nadia certainly seems to think she accomplished her goal. When she sees Delia on the train, relief washes over her de ella — Nadia has pulled off a time heist with fewer hiccups than the Avengers. But there’s an unmistakable air of inevitability to these final moments of the fifth episode. Nadia revels in her success of her: “I think I finally fucking changed what happened, which could change what happened to Vera, which will change what happens to Nora, which will change what happens to me.” It’s the butterfly effect, right? If Nadia prevented the Nazis from taking her family’s valuables, then it won’t matter that Nora steals the Krugerrands later. Hell, maybe there won’t be any Krugerrands because Vera won’t be so intent on having an exit strategy.
But as Ruth would say, nothing in this life is easy except pissing in the shower. After all her efforts of her and time travel of her — and there’s no telling what she has neglected in the present — Nadia has n’t changed anything. With just a hint of resignation, she tells an even younger Nora that she can only do “what was always done.” (This news will boom out Alan, who recently accepted that time travel isn’t just for fun and that Lenny may need saving.) In season one, Nadia had to learn to let go of the past; in season two, she has to dig further into it than she ever expected. Are these lessons at odds with each other? Is this really the end of Nadia’s time shenanigans?
Of course not. She might ultimately have re-created her family’s history de ella, but all this mucking about with time may have unintended consequences. Nadia is waylaid on her return trip to 2022 by, oh, 20 years or so. That’s right: She’s inside Nora’s body again just as her water breaks. Nadia has resigned herself to the past, but clearly the past isn’t through with her yet.
• You might have looked this up after the first episode, but the gold train was real.
•Russian Doll has always been built around Natasha Lyonne’s exceptional performance, but there’s greater variation in “Exquisite Corpse.” She inhabits multiple roles and times, capturing Nadia’s emotional highs and lows with aplomb. Ella’s Lyonne’s voice is singular, but here her quipping from her dies down and the show relies upon her expressive face from her more than ever.
• This episode was filmed on location in Budapest, which makes it even more poignant.